Across The Line At 30!
Review by Stacy Fitzpatrick • Photography Carrie Davenport
On 05 September 1986 a brand new radio show hit the airwaves of Northern Ireland from BBC Radio Ulster. Then called The Bottom Line and presented by Mike Edgar, it became a pioneer show for local music, giving first airplay to some of the biggest musical names from our shores. Fast forward 30 years and the grand Ulster Hall in Belfast became home for the evening for the now named Across The Line as they celebrated a very special 30th birthday milestone.
A special event meaningfully held at the Ulster Hall, as the venue’s re-opening in 2008 brought not only Across The Line but The Divine Comedy and Therapy? together under the same roof once again.
Across The Line has been consistently unveiling new and exceptional music to the public from the wealth of talent across the island every Monday evening. Current presenters Rigsy and Stuart Bailie hosted the evening of music and chat to a packed out audience of 1,000 lucky ticket holders.
The show was not only a concert but was broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster and and BBC iPlayer giving those who weren’t in attendance the opportunity to see and hear everything as it happened.
Stuart and Rigsy wasted no time in exuberating the excitable crowd letting us all know what was in store for the following two hours. Performing guests, all close to the hearts of the ATL unit included Soak, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, The 4 Of Us, Saint Sister, Villagers, R51 and closing the show, Therapy?.
A special mixture of performers embracing the past, present and future of musical talent championed by ATL.
Stuart warmly introduced first special guest performer Soak to open the show with the popular ‘BLUD’. All eyes in the crowd were forefront as they greeted Soak with enthusiastic cheers.
Soak, aka Bridie Monds-Watson from Derry, has had a special relationship with Across The Line, a regular on the shows playlist and as a studio guest.
Following BLUD, Soak who has been nominated for and won an array of awards including a Mercury Music Prize 2015 nomination and winner of last years Northern Ireland Music Prize launches straight into second song of choice B A Nobody. Both being tracks, from her 2015 debut album ‘ Before We Forgot How To Dream’ favourites for her fans and listeners of ATL.
Following Soak’s second performance, Stuart acknowledged the vibe within in the Ulster Hall at that moment saying ‘We are now officially in the pinch me now zone!’.
He went on to reveal how they asked each of the artists performing to choose one track as a cover version of their choice, something that means something to them with a Northern Ireland connection. Addressing Bridie with the theme of community and friendship he continues: “Because that’s what keeps us all going…” giving Bridie the opportunity to explain her reason for her upcoming rendition.
Bridie’s choice was certainly a true reflection of community and friendship. Choosing to perform ‘Shopping Centre Song’ by fellow Derry/Donegal musician Rainy Boy Sleep aka Stevie Martin who tragically passed away recently, it was a deeply poignant tribute. The audience reflected that sentiment as she announced her choice with applause. Bridie, true emotion evident in her expression and voice went onto explain “I just feel that Stevie was a really, really, really special person. And he was a good friend of mine and we miss him a lot. And I don’t want anybody to forget him.”
The silent audience fully engaged as Soak began her bittersweet tribute to Stevie. It was a comforting idea to feel that Stevie himself was stood behind her watching with pride and affection.
Following Soaks deeply touching performance, Rigsy took to the stage to acknowledge absent friends Ash who provided a special video message especially for the gig.
Ash’s Tim Wheeler reminisced about the first time they were on Across The Line whilst ‘still in school uniforms’ back in 1994. A testament to the value and the long friendships that musicians make with the show.
From the throwback to the past big hitters in Across The Lines history, the next guests reflected the new and emerging talent catching ATL’s attention as Rigsy affirmed to the audience introducing the next act Saint Sister: “New music is such a huge part of what we do in Across The Line. Saint Sister were a no-brainer for us to represent that on stage tonight.”
Rising stars Saint Sister brought a cloud of tranquil peace descending inside the Ulster Hall as they transfixed and calmed the audience. The Belfast/Derry duo have the very rare ability to still the mind, elevate emotions with their angelic mesmerising harmonies and melodies.
Their chosen cover version was coincidentally The Divine Comedy’s ‘Songs Of Love’ in which harpist Gemma revealed was chosen before they knew that Neil Hannon would be at the show also. “So I hope he likes it…” she modestly laughed.
Following their performance presenter Stuart brings the man himself onto stage for a humorous chat. His feedback to Saint Sisters cover of his own song was. “They were wonderful!” Referring to Saint Sisters ethereal sound he said:
“It’s so weird, I kind of imagine that would be the music I would hear as I’ve just died and and drifting up to Heaven.”
“We could perhaps arrange that at some point!” quips Stuart.
Before dapperly dressed Neil takes to his piano Stuart refers to his new song Forever Lion as one of the happiest songs he’s heard. To which Neil replies, in his own quirky way: “I’m cooking with gas, everything’s rosy in the garden!..as long as the pigs don’t eat the roses!”
Neil, who Stuart asserts is ‘Very much engrained in the fibre of Across The Line.’ proclaims his respect for Across The Line stating:
“It’s incredible. You’ve still got five years on me.It’s an amazing kind of longevity to this program, this entity..
“It’s hard in a Province of this size to nurture talent and it’s by there being institutions like Across The Line that that actually occurs. It doesn’t just happen by accident. So…very important.”
Seating himself at the piano Neil warmly greeted the audience and introducing his new single, “Or a song from the album [Foreverland] you might have heard.” The song typically humorous, an ode to Catherine The Great!
Then came his cover of Gloria by Them, a highly entertaining rendition which had the audience joining along with and his third choice his own Charmed Life “Being a song Rigsy likes so I thought I’d play it!” he said.
Rigsy then led into a dedication to past presenters of Across The Line from the last three decades, many in attendance including the very first ATL/Bottom Line presenters Mike Edgar. Acknowledgements were made to other presenters including ATL’s dance show Paul Hamill and Paul McClean.
He reminisced fondly of his former co-presenter Donna Legge, in which they not only hosted the radio program but also ATL TV and the audience were reminded of those days with a video montage of the ATL TV days featuring some of ATL’s friends of the show who have gone onto become globally respected musicians.The video montage truly reflected the shows commitment to local music from all genres.
As impressive as it was to view, the level of work that must of went into creating these montages is admired. To examine 30 years of archive footage and create a bespoke for the evening flashback would undoubtedly been a painstaking task.
Taking us from the old, Rigsy then introduced the new with up and coming young band R51. A band so young that they weren’t even born when the ATL first started!
Alt-Rock five piece R51 fronted by the impressively mature voiced Melyssa Shannon opened their performance with Pillow Talk. A young band surrounded by musical legends and peers, as well as being broadcast live across the nation. For any performer it would of been a nerve racking experience. R51 embraced it and eventually took it in their stride, completely owning the stage with their feisty cover of Damien Rice’s Volcano and Elephant from their new EP No Chill.
A video testimony from listeners of the show over the last 30 years reflect how much the show means to the public. Long time listener and DJ Nik Muzka commented “For me it soundtracked what was happening in Northern Ireland. It was different than what was happening on Radio 1 and their mainstream shows and it had more of a representation of what was being played within the country.” continuing “ For me that’s what drew me to the station, it felt a wee bit more real, it was more listening to the people.”
Whilst Journalist Barry Turley affirmed “It was really important. One of the things I would say is that at a time when there wasn’t a lot to be cheerful about here in Northern Ireland, there was an opportunity for young bands to get heard.”
Next on stage came Newry’s The 4 Of Us, long time friends of the show from the very early days. Their three songs included a special tribute of the late Henry McCullough’s Walk With Me. The man they described as “A true legend, one of the best guitar players that ever came out of Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, Europe, the rest of the World. Fantastic and also a hell of a nice guy to boot.”
Finishing with the song that got them started, Mary, they brought a feeling of nostalgia to the Ulster Hall and reminded us that they too, are ‘hell of nice guys’.
Representing the south of Ireland came Villagers’ Conor O’Brien. Winner of the 2016 Ivor Novello award for Best Album for Darling Arithmetic, his presence at this special event affirmed the respect that ATL holds with even the greatest successful musicians.
The diminutive Conor instantly commanded the attention of every person in attendance throughout his performance. Evident through the perfectly timed cheers of the audience at his changes of tempo, he had us all hanging on his every chord. His performance of Courage stilled the hall and drew you into a feeling that it was just you and him in the room, everybody else fading away. Finishing with Van Morrisons’ It Stoned Me, Conor O’Brien only left us desiring more with Stuart echoing our thoughts ‘My goodness that was perfection.’
Rigsy and Stuart joined onstage by premiere presenter Mike Edgar, described by Stuart as ‘The man who has moved mountains, who pushed that first fader 30 years ago.’ Mike, clearly proud of the show and it’s achievements was enthusiastically thankful to the crowd present and for the support of listeners over the years. A worthy acknowledgement was given to Radio Producer and Event Producer Jimmy Devlin, who put the whole night together.
Genuine thanks were given to the people who have made the show what it is from the presenters and artists, down to the crew and fans. Mike Edgar also gave a touching testament to former presenter, the late Uaneen Fitzsimons saying: “…We really really miss her, but we remember her fondly.”
Mike acknowledged the presence of some of the original figures from the first day of ATL thirty years ago. Original producer Davy Sims, Davy Kilpatrick and Jackie Hamilton and the man who gave the program the green light, Peter Weil-who flew in especially for the event proves how much pride and dedication is attached to the show.
Mike stirred the excitement as he introduced final act Therapy? “ This program, this nation owes them as huge debt of thanks.” He states, continuing “ Northern Ireland went through a bit of a weird time back in the 80’s, music was a bit fallow.
“ then in the early 90’s a band that’s standing behind me right now rocked it right out….
As the audience cheers along to his emphatic words he continues: “ They just started a revolution. They opened a door. Divine Comedy, Ash, Snow Patrol all those guys, they steamed through that door and it’s because these guys helped open that door and put Northern Ireland on the map.”
And Therapy? Certainly did rock it out bringing the celebratory atmosphere to it’s peak. A charged, ferocious performance, the perfect end to the night, climaxing with an amped up, rocked up rendition of You Are My Sunshine.
Therapy?, one of the original success stories and music lovers favourites showed that Across The Line truly is the ultimate portal connecting Northern Ireland together on a community level but also to the rest of the world.
Across The Line is broadcast live every Monday evening on BBC Radio Ulster from 8pm.
Listen again via BBC Radio iPlayer via bbc.co.uk/radio and follow the links to BBC Radio Ulster